Political Physics: Prerequisites for Politicians, Especially Local Ones

Everywhere you turn cities around the country are facing multimillion deficits.  Truthfully, nowadays it appears that no level of government is immune to financial instability.  But I would argue that financial crisis at the local level (e.g., municipal, borough, town, etc.) is often more difficult to solve, particularly in urban areas.  Why?  Well, cities only have one major source of revenue – property taxes – and cities tend to have a lot less flexibility in terms of expenditures that can be cut and/or reduced.

Trenton, the city I currently call home, is one of those cities.  We are facing a $60 million deficit and even with massive layoffs planned the amount only shrinks by about $20 million.  So after already raising taxes two years in a row and a $40 million deficit looming, most of us taxpayers are ready to jump ship.  And Trenton is not alone…in NJ almost every major city (e.g., Newark, Jersey City, Camden, etc.) across the state is facing a million or multimillion dollar deficit.


In times of extreme crisis like these, leadership becomes critical.  Yet the gap between the significant problems facing urban cities like Trenton and the skill set and preparedness of city leadership is sizable.

Watching these melodramas unfold around the country as cities try to “right the ship” has me wondering if perhaps some people are just not qualified to hold public office and maybe there needs to be prerequisites (e.g., other than things like age, national origin, residency, etc.).

I am not sure what the “right” set of prerequisites should be, but off the top of my head I am thinking college education, prior experience in public administration, public policy, business administration, etc. and management experience.  I would also recommend that like most civil servant candidates be required to take a test to assess their understanding of what their role is (e.g., what powers does the mayor have, what is the role of city council, etc.).  Moreover, candidates should have to be able to put together a comprehensive revitalization strategy for the city as part of their campaign….and I do not mean those sometimes pretty flimsy campaign platforms or stump speeches.  And I know that this is going to sound elitist, but I would also like to see the candidate take criminal background and credit history checks.  If you cannot keep your own financial house in order and a city is facing a significant financial crisis, then a voter may want to reconsider your ability to lead.

Cities around the country – like Trenton – are facing significant challenges and taxpayers cannot afford leadership that does not have the capacity to “right the ship.”  It does not matter if the person is a “really nice lady” or if she was a high school basketball phenomenon, the real question do they have the skill set necessary to lead your city to financial solvency and if the answer is no, then in my opinion they should not even be on the ballot.

Maybe that makes me sound like an elitist, but as a taxpayer I cannot afford the alternative.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk


a political observation by Monique King-Viehland